The last post took a look at religion and science as historical phenomena, each addressing the quest for understanding as seen from their particular perspectives. To look at these subjects as phenomena involves placing them in the context of origins, ‘becomings’, and states. Each began somewhere, developed via a unique process, and emerged as a phenomenon which can be described, explored and encountered. Each one, effectively, evolved. Today’s post will explore the unique evolutionary perspective of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard, as a paleontologist, firmly believed that the concept of evolution, as opposed to being antithetical to the belief in God, actually can be seen as a path to belief.
A Very Brief History of Evolution
Evolution as such has always been historically understood in a vague and intuitive way. For example, one of the first things that Christians did to validate their new beliefs was to identify the lineage of Jesus, to show that the Old Testament prophets foretold his appearance long before his birth and thus locate him at the apex of a long process of ‘coming to be’. This is not so different from the standard practice of rulers claiming dynastic succession as a basis for their legitimacy. Knowing (or believing) the precedents of a subject was a necessary part of the understanding of it: it was one tool in unravelling the hermeneutical paradox.
This vague and intuitive approach was to be stood on its head with Charles Darwin, in his groundbreaking book, “On the Origin of Species” which made the astounding claim that all living things ‘descended’ from previous living things: that they ‘evolved’. This new perspective on reality was to become a leaven for science in that it offered an objective approach to study living things: to put them in a context of precedents and antecedents. It is also seen by many as an enemy of religion since, taken to its perceived full meaning, it seems to contradict religious traditions and their holy books, suggests the absence of a creator, and hence undermines most expressions of belief.
As pregnant with meaning as this theory has proved to be, however, it has left the great majority of reality unexamined. Evolution, as articulated by Darwin, successful though it may be in explaining the march of living things, does not address the whole of reality. It is a partial explanation, only addressing the most recent small fraction of a percent of the history of the universe.
The same science which brought us the theory of evolution was, some hundred years later, to open our eyes to the billions of years of the development which makes the parts which would populate the cells which would then ‘evolve’. This same sweeping vision of a vast past also suggested a future of equal dimensions. The idea of an evolution at the cosmic level, the level of the entire universe, was born.
Not surprisingly, this new vista of evolution was seized upon by detractors of religion as even more evidence for their stance. With Darwin’s new perspective ‘atheism’ became an acceptable viewpoint, along with religion. New social structures emerged which outlawed religion as “an opiate of the people”, a system of suppression which should be eliminated so that the true nature of man could freely emerge. Even today, the battle over the concept between atheists and creationists continues unabated. What was it about the concept of evolution that so inspired Teilhard?
The Teilhardian Shift
Like many other thinkers of the time, Teilhard was stimulated by the new perspectives of time and space that began to surface at the end of the nineteenth century. Both cosmologists and biologists had begun to envision the incredible spans of time that must have occurred in order for the universe (and life) to evolve to its current order. Physicists were beginning to postulate (and develop methods to observe) an ever-smaller series of entities that underpinned the composition of matter, as well as the incredible energies which held them together. Psychologists were beginning to plumb the unconscious states of the mind. Social scientists were beginning to formulate theories of human behavior in terms heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of “Natural Selection”. In some parts of the world, eighteenth century feudal societies were being disrupted and replaced by governments which incorporated concepts of evolution in their manifestos.
What Does Science Say?
The “Standard Model” of physics (http://benbest.com/science/standard.html) postulates that the smallest entities in the universe (appearing all at once in ‘the big bang’) immediately begin to unite with other particles under the influence of certain forces. The products of this unification are capable of then uniting with other particles of their class, which produce new entities, and so on. Over long periods of time this results in the rich material world which we see now. (The URL above overviews the standard model and identifies these particles and forces.)
Unlike the case for biology, science does not have an underlying theory for the ‘engine’ of evolution of matter prior to the cell, just an increasingly detailed understanding of how entities are composed.
For living things, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection forms a good basis for the replication and survival of living things prior to the human. Effectively, Natural Selection is the ‘engine’ of biological evolution.
In the case of the human, while many schools of thought propose that humans continue to be subject to the ‘laws’ of natural selection, their conclusions about human activity are at best very clumsy.
So science sees evolution of the universe occurring in three stages:
Pre Life: Physical entities united by forces described by physics and chemistry.
Life: Biological entities united by forces described by Darwinistic Natural Selection.
Humans: Human persons united by Darwinistic influences?
As we will see below, the jury’s still out on this last stage.
What did Teilhard Say?
As his interest in science and technology grew, Teilhard found himself increasingly distressed over the perceived gap between the cosmic viewpoints of religion and science. This led him to his point of view that science and religion simply represented different methods of understanding the nature of the universe, and particularly the nature of the human person. His writings continuously sought to bring them into some level of cohesion. He believed (and it is the underlying thesis of this blog) that, consistent with the history of the universe, science and religion will continue to evolve, and that as they do, their basis for cohesion will become more apparent.
He was also distressed that as this new scientific perspective unfolded, it was accompanied by an increasing materialistic aspect on one hand, and a vigorous attack by religion on the other. His life’s goal was to show that neither of these extreme positions were valid; rather that the two perspectives could be brought into a harmonious cohesion in which both would be enhanced and the full potential of human existence could be better understood.
His approach to this goal was to look at cosmic evolution (the unfolding of the universe over time, including biological and human evolution) as a single, ongoing process. In doing so, he sought to identify the underlying principles at play in the process, and show how these principles reappear over and over in the process, and can be seen to be at work in human evolution today.
This approach, of course, does not find universal acceptance, being too materialistic for believers and too religious for scientists. Followed through to its logical conclusions, however, it can be seen to open a new and very positive perspective for both.
Teilhard’s Observations on Evolution
Teilhard, who wrote in advance of the development of the Standard Model, makes several observations about the process as it was then known:
Simplicity and Time: Simpler entities always correspond to an earlier era of time. The simplest and smallest came first in what came to be called “The Big Bang”.
Complexity and Time: Over time, new manifestations of matter appear as more complex than the previous. This increased complexity results in an increased capacity for union, and produces an increase in the complexity of the products of the new unions. Teilhard saw this in the basic evolution of protons and neutrons, then atoms, then molecules over long periods of time. Science since then has continued its march ‘downwards’, in which this same process is seen to hold for even simpler forms of matter, such as in the growth from quarks and leptons to protons and neutrons.
Entities and Forces: These unions take place under the influence of forces; initially the strong and weak nuclear forces, then as the particles gather mass, the force of gravity. All the steps in evolution can be seen to take place between increasingly complex entities joined by new and more complex forces.
Discontinuities: Such steps in evolution aren’t necessarily continuous, but can be distinctively discontinuous. Such is the case of the evolution of simple atoms (helium and hydrogen, in abundant supply in the gaseous clouds which populate the universe) to more complex atoms (oxygen and carbon, as the basis of molecular development in planets). The simpler gasses become stars by being drawn into smaller and smaller volumes by gravity, compressed into nuclear infernos in which electrons are stripped and nuclei enriched, resulting in more complex atoms. When the star explodes, these atoms are strewn into surrounding space, where the force of gravity again pulls them in to form the many molecules (such as carbon, air and water) which make up planetary systems.
Evolution of Living Things: This process continues through the development of biological life, and is well understood via Darwin’s theory of “Natural Selection” in which living things evolve through the process of replication and survival. Having gone through a ‘change of state’ with the appearance of the cell, cosmic evolution continues to produce more complex entities whose increase in complexity come about through the influence of new forces.
Human Evolution: The process continues on through the development of very complex brains in which consciousness emerges, another change of state, and influences of new forces which promote further complexity.
Hence the history of the universe can be summarized as the appearance of more complex entities under the influence of increasingly complex fields of force:
– Atoms, molecules, cells, brains and consciousness, all bursting forth newly formed with new potentialities and subject to new forces.
– Three waves, or stages of evolution: the stage of physics, the stage of biology and the stage of humanity, each delineated by a step change of complexity in which the newly formed entity can now cooperate with a new type of energy to continue the rise to increased complexity.
In the words of Teilhard: “…the history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of every more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen”
This very brief and overly simplistic summary of his observations summarizes Teilhard’s basic vision, and as we will see in later postings, can be seen as a basis for understanding the existence of God in a way that does not compromise either Western religious concepts of the basis for scientific thought.
The next post will carry Teilhard’s vision into the evolution of living things, and begin to address some implications.